About this Piece
In February of 1842, at age 31, Robert Schumann accompanied his new wife Clara, an eminent concert pianist, on a concert tour to the German cities of Bremen, Oldeburg, and Hamburg. In March, Robert returned alone to their home in Leipzig to fulfill his duties as a critic for the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. Known more widely as a “scribbler” for the music periodical than as a composer, his catalogue of compositions then consisted almost entirely of piano miniatures and song cycles for voice and piano. It was only in the previous year, 1841, when he composed his “Spring” Symphony, that he first ventured into a large form, a move which he hoped would help him begin to reach a large audience.
Alone in Leipzig, Schumann was visited by what he called “quartet-ish thoughts” and embarked on a study of the string quartets of Mozart and Beethoven. Upon Clara’s return from concerts in Copenhagen, Robert began composing the three string quartets that make up his Op. 41.
In No. 3, the influence of both Mozart and Beethoven is felt immediately, not only in the introduction’s tonal ambiguity, with its unsettling chromatic harmony, but in Schumann’s very brief establishment of the “tonic” (home) key before swiftly journeying into other keys. The two-note descending motive in the first violin, which opens the work, signals the beginning of each of the major sections of the sonata-form movement.
In the second movement Schumann uses a rhythmic technique that gives it the agitato quality in its title: what the listener perceives as downbeats are actually upbeats. Gradually the rhythm reorients itself just in time for a “metric modulation” from three notes per pulse (3/8 time) to a new section in duple 2/4 time. Here the listener is treated to the kind of imitative counterpoint one might hear in a Baroque suite by Bach or Purcell, as Schumann builds a structure of symmetrical ascending and descending phrases infused with unstable harmony.
For the often-brooding Adagio, a repeating ostinato rhythm in the second violin emerges out of a lyrical texture and becomes a kind of heartbeat for the movement.
This same ostinato becomes the generating rhythm for the Finale, whose mercurial sense of pulse is, as in the second movement, the result of accented upbeats. (Despite the vastly different context, the opening chord of the finale is identical to the first chord of the entire work.) A more relaxed middle section, labeled “quasi trio,” leads to a return of the movement’s opening material, which drives the quartet to its rousing finish. — Christopher Anderson-Bazzoli